Contains mature language.
“I can see it now! Can see it! Got to get it!!”
David Stapleton screamed in his sleep. He flailed about on his bed, entangled in a mass of sweaty sheets and blankets. David slowly started to come out of his stupor, stuck in a surreal and frightening dimension between sleep and wakefulness. His eyelids felt stuck together and his mouth was parched. His body felt stiff and leaden, his breathing heavy and his heart racing. David wasn’t sure of his surroundings and didn’t know if he had been dreaming or was reliving his worst nightmare.
Gradually David became more aware. Yes, it was as he feared – the dream, his constant companion. He sat up in bed, reached for a cigarette, lit it and inhaled deeply. He sat in silence, smoking and thinking, his thoughts spinning like a Vegas roulette wheel. Each night he climbed into bed exhausted, desperately in need of sleep yet terrified that the dream would come again.
David glanced at his alarm clock; 4:00AM – ridiculously early but he knew he would not be falling back to sleep. He slipped on his sweatpants and shuffled into the kitchen to make coffee. While the coffee brewed, David stared into the oh so familiar fog. He lit another cigarette and thought about that night four years ago.
Four Years Earlier:
David’s decision to flee the scene was fueled by fear, self-preservation and adrenaline. An electrical storm during the night wreaked havoc with the streetlights on Route 718 causing them to flash at indiscriminate intervals. Even though his was the only car on the dimly lit road, the strobe effect from the lights was haphazard and dangerously distracting. There were shadows looming everywhere; David never saw the cyclist cross his path.
The impact was powerful yet made only a quiet thud like the subtle reload of a gun’s magazine. The visual impression, however, was appalling. The tableau switched to slow motion; David watched in horror as a mangled body performed a ‘danse macabre’ across the hood of his car while musical phrases from “O Fortuna” screamed in his head. The cyclist soared through the air like an acrobat and landed in a twisted heap fifty feet or so from the car.
David sat motionless in his car; no other living creature was anywhere in sight. “What to do? What to do?” raced through his mind. He’d never had a car accident, not even a parking ticket. Now he had run someone down – an innocent cyclist. Was it a man or a woman? Surely this person would be missed by family and friends, perhaps his or her parents or – God forbid – their children. What a terrible fate, a horrible accident.
Yes, David had a few drinks with friends after work, just a few; the alcohol had to be out of his system by now. But wait; the cyclist wore no reflective clothing, not even a warning light on the bike’s handlebars or wheels. Out cycling in the night, alone; wasn’t that tempting fate? Maybe they got what they deserved.
Slowly David opened the door and looked around; the deafening silence was pounding in his brain, the absence of people other-worldly. With measured steps he approached the crumpled body. A gentle push of his booted foot confirmed what he already suspected: the cyclist was dead. A battered helmet sat near the edge of the road; the bright orange and black ‘KTM’ emblem of the bicycle manufacturer in Austria stared at David accusingly. The longer he looked at the emblem the more he realized he had two choices: he could report the accident to the police and face the consequences or he could clean up this mess and get on with his life.
As he walked back to his car David knew what he had to do. A look at the front end showed very little damage, a small inconvenience he could deal with later. More pressing matters prevailed; first he had to extricate the bicycle from under his car. David sat in the driver’s seat, shifted the car into reverse and gently backed up. After a couple of seconds he could feel the car and the bicycle disengage.
The bike was a wreck but there wasn’t much debris on the road. Retrieving his jacket, David wrapped it around the top tube bar and carried the bike back to the dead cyclist. Taking a few steps away from the road he realized it would be easy to throw the bike over the edge, making it look like the cyclist had swerved off the road – if the body was ever found at all. He gave the bike a hefty toss and it disappeared onto the woods below. With his foot David then rolled the cyclist’s body and helmet down the hill.
David walked back to his car and broke off a low hanging branch from a tree which he used to sweep the road clear of any pieces of glass or metal. Getting back into the car, he turned on the radio and cranked up the volume.
“Okay” David murmured to himself. “It’s all gonna be okay. Just one last thing. Got to take care of that little dent in the hood of my car.” David kept driving until he reached a busy gas station. He drove up to a pump, intentionally smacking into a metal barrier so witnesses could attest to the mishap.
David drove home feeling much more relaxed and confident. He reached for his jacket but it wasn’t there. His face went pale and he broke out in a cold sweat. Closing his eyes he could clearly see his jacket wrapped around the bicycle, his phone still in the pocket, as it made its final descent into the woods.
Four Years Later:
Tom Delaney sat alone at his favorite bar sipping his third bourbon. Life had quickly gone down the shitter a few months ago when he bet big time on a “sure thing” that didn’t pan out. That was one of Tom’s biggest faults; he was always looking for the money angle, whether legit or not. Now here he was, a 38-year-old washed up ex-PI with a huge chip on his shoulder, a failed marriage and no money.
When the bartender announced closing time, Tom grudgingly slid off his stool and made his way to his car. He took Route 718 toward a friend’s cabin which he was using until he got his life on track.
The weather was changing and when the fog rolls in, driving on 718 gets hairy.
He wasn’t on the road very long when he found himself in pea soup conditions. Suddenly a deer appeared out of nowhere and Tom swerved, coming to a screeching stop. After a brief standoff, the deer gracefully bounded down the steep edge and disappeared into the thick woods.
Shaken, Tom settled himself in his car. The glow of the headlights revealed a shiny object in the thicket below. Being a curious type, Tom drove his car closer to the edge, grabbed a flashlight from the backseat and gingerly made his way down the side of the bluff settling on a heavily overgrown landing about 15 feet below. He walked around for a few minutes before his foot came in contact with something hard. Crouching for a better look, he discovered a battered helmet with the weather-beaten orange and black ‘KTM’ emblem of a bicycle manufacturer.
Disappointed that his find wasn’t something valuable, Tom stood up to leave. He took a few steps and heard a strange ‘crunch’ under his shoe. Shining his flashlight on his foot, Tom couldn’t believe what was buried under the leaves and debris.
“Holy shit! It’s a human skeleton! Poor guy must have ridden his bike off the road. Wonder where his bicycle is? Well, well, what have we here?” Tom moved some leaves out of the way and discovered a fanny pack which he took. Maybe he’d get lucky and find some money in the bag.
Deciding to investigate a little more, Tom eventually came across the bicycle caught up in a large bush. It was a mangled mess, certainly of no value to him; nearby was a moldy leather jacket. Tom snagged the jacket and went through the pockets; nothing. Noticing a zippered inner compartment, he found an iPhone inside. Slipping the phone into his rear pocket, Tom climbed up to his car and drove off. He left with that uneasy, suspicious feeling he’d get while working on a case. Old habits die hard.
Once home, Tom emptied the contents of the pack: assorted crap, a wallet and an iPhone. “Hmm. Two iPhones. Why would one person need two cells? There had to be two people there that night. What the hell happened? Was this the scene of an accident or a crime?” Tom’s PI sixth sense was really kicking in now.
Both phones were wet. Drying them off, Tom placed the phones and SIM cards in two separate Ziploc bags filled with silica gel packets he had stockpiled. They’d have to dry out a day or two. Next he went through the wallet: $47 which he immediately pocketed, an expired debit card and a driver’s license. The license was issued to Joseph Barnes, 312 Ogden Drive, Sparta, NJ. – a 90-minute drive from the cabin.
Tom broke out his own phone and Googled ‘Joseph Barnes, Sparta, NJ’; it took a little while then BINGO! There it was – a missing person flyer dated January 2018. Last known location was Bethlehem, PA – a few miles from the cabin. There was a phone number to call. A picture of Joseph on a bike holding a KTM helmet smiled at Tom; the same face was on the driver’s license.
Tom spent most of the following day at Wind Creek Casino in Bethlehem playing the penny slots with Joseph Barnes’ $47. He was on a roll and left the casino with $100 in his pocket. Tom couldn’t wait any longer and anxiously drove home to see if he could get the iPhones up and running.
He took the phones out of the bags, inserted the SIM cards and turned them on; both phones started up. To Tom’s amazement, neither phone needed a passcode. As he suspected, one phone belonged to Joseph Barnes; the other belonged to someone named David Stapleton from Allentown, PA.
“David, David, David. Why were you on Route 718 that night and what did you do to Joseph Barnes?” he thought. Tom realized that after four years David Stapleton could be anywhere with a different identity, job and phone number but there was only one way to find out. After his win at the casino, he was feeling lucky. This could be the big break he was waiting for.
Slipping David’s phone into his pocket, Tom drove to his favorite bar. On the corner was an old phone booth with a pay telephone – the untraceable kind. Tom opened ‘Settings’ on David’s iPhone; there were two different phone numbers for David. Tom hesitated for a minute thinking about his days as a PI.
Instinct took over, suggesting he ignore the first number on David’s phone and go for the second one. Tom reasoned that the first number was likely David’s cell number; there was a chance the second number was for a business, a house or a place of employment for David – anything that might provide a clue. It was worth a shot. After all, Tom wasn’t looking to talk to David just yet; all he wanted was a lead.
Tom dropped two quarters into the public phone slot and dialed the second number on David’s cell. The call was answered on the third ring. “Hi. This is Dave at Stapleton Plumbing and Heating in Allentown. We’re closed now but will reopen at 8 AM. Please call back then.”
Pay dirt! Tom Delaney may be down but he wasn’t out! He’d head back to the cabin and Google Stapleton Plumbing and Heating, maybe get an address. This called for a little celebration – some company at the bar with his old friend Jim Beam.
Sipping his drink, Tom could practically smell the shakedown money he’d be raking in. As he drove home from the bar, the ubiquitous late-night fog rolled in. Tom was momentarily blinded by a pair of oncoming headlights and swerved right to avoid a collision. He turned the steering wheel sharply and his car plowed through bushes, bounced off trees and crash-landed upside down at the bottom of the cliff before it burst into flames.
Poor Tom. Just when things were starting to look up. Karma’s a bitch.
A few hours later David Stapleton once again found himself in the clutches of his ever-present nightmare. He woke up drenched in sweat and bolted straight out of bed, his heart racing. He felt nauseous and dizzy. He grasped the edge of the bathroom sink staring at himself in the mirror.
“How could you have been so callous leaving the scene of a crime? How have you been living with yourself the past four years?” This hasn’t been living, he realized, knowing every day would end with the same hellish nightmare.
David stood in the bathroom and closed his eyes; he could clearly see his leather jacket wrapped around the bicycle he threw over the cliff four years ago, his phone still in the pocket, as it made its final descent into the woods – the same dream that left him screaming in the night, every night, for the past four years. “I can see it now!” he sobbed. “I can see it.”
Overcome with fear, exhaustion and remorse, David walked out the back door of his apartment above the plumbing business. Barefoot and shirtless, he was unfazed by the cold, dense fog rolling in. Blindly he went down the damp rickety steps and walked deeper in the woods behind his apartment – unseeing, uncaring.
Suddenly David felt a searing pain in his chest. Gasping for air, he clutched his arm and fell to his knees, rolling down the wet, moss-covered precipice in the woods. Five seconds later, David Stapleton was sprawled out in the shrouded morass 30 feet below, dead from a massive heart attack.
Was it a heart attack that killed David Stapleton or overwhelming guilt? No one will ever know for sure. David never knew that with Tom’s death, he was completely in the clear of any crime; the only evidence – the phone that tied him to that horrible accident – was now in the jacket pocket of Tom Delaney’s incinerated body.
Tom and David both – dead on the same night a few miles apart – one hunting and the other haunted.
Oh, the irony.
NAR © 2022